By Michelle Mondo
Since she was paroled in November after more than 12 years in prison for a crime she maintains never happened, Anna Vasquez has learned that being a registered sex offender means never truly being free.
No doubt, Vasquez said, she's happy to be out of a cell, waking up in her own bed, sitting on the porch, watching fireworks on New Year's Eve.
But the stringent parole restrictions, even tougher for sex offenders, she must adhere to have gnawed at her optimism.
She said she has lost out on job offers, is constrained in where she can drive, can't visit certain family members and is blocked from going to a church, some of what would help her readjust from prison life.
On Saturday, Vasquez wasn't allowed to attend the screening of a partly completed documentary and a panel discussion about her case and the ongoing efforts to win exoneration for her and her three co-defendants, who always have professed their innocence.
The event, part of CineFestival at the Guadalupe Theater, was within 500 feet of a school, making it off limits to a sex offender.
“I'm not a child molester,” said Vasquez, 37. “I do understand the restrictions; it just sucks that I'm under that blanket. There are some sick people out there, and it's upsetting to me that I'm looked at like that, too.”
Last year, one of the four women's two accusers publicly recanted, saying the bizarre sexual assault never happened. Her testimony had helped convict Vasquez and three friends: Cassandra Rivera, 38, Kristie Mayhugh, 40, and Elizabeth Ramirez, 38. They were accused in 1994 by Ramirez's two nieces, then 7 and 9. The younger niece, now 25, has changed her story; the older sister has not commented. San Antonio Express-News stories in 2010 delved into the conflicting testimony and questionable evidence presented at the trials.
Ramirez, who was tried separately and sentenced to 37½ years in prison, isn't eligible for parole for another two years. Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh entered prison in 2000 to serve 15-year sentences.
As the only one out of prison on parole so far, Vasquez has taken on the mantle of spokeswoman for the efforts, led by The Innocence Project of Texas, to clear all four women.
On the good days since her release, Vasquez doesn't dwell on what she's lost since 1994.
“It's sitting down with my family, sitting on the porch, cutting the grass, going to H-E-B even and shopping. Yesterday, I was cleaning out this little storage room. That was a good day,” she said.
She tries to focus on the three goals she hopes to achieve in her first six months out of prison: get a driver's license, find a job and buy her own car. So far, she's reached the first one, but the other two are more difficult than she realized.
On the bad days, when she's turned down for a job or told she won't get to CineFestival, Vasquez is reminded that she still can't live the life she wants.
“This conviction defines her,” said her attorney, Mike Ware. “She can never be free until this wrong is made right, and despite her being on parole, she's not free of that.”